Get Growing: Paying attention to the little bulbs

  • Snowdrops (Galanthus) are the usually the earliest bulbs to bloom. They push their way up through snow and frozen muck, assuaging our fears that spring will never come. PEXELS

For the Gazette
Published: 10/7/2022 3:43:18 PM

When I’m perusing catalogs offering bulbs for spring flowers, I usually jump right to the pages of boldly colored tulips and narcissi. I skip over the smaller bulbs with their diminutive, sometimes subtle, blooms. But my interest shifted this summer when I came across a book called “The Little Bulbs: A Tale of Two Gardens” at a friend’s house in Vermont. Written in 1957 by Elizabeth Lawrence, the book was reprinted in 1986 by the Duke University Press.

The book chronicles Lawrence’s correspondence with a man she refers to only as Mr. Krippendorf, a gardener in Ohio who shared her passion for the smaller, more delicate flowers that emerge from “little bulbs.” Her first chapter begins, “As soon as spring is in the air Mr. Krippendorf and I begin an antiphonal chorus, like two frogs in neighboring ponds: What have you in bloom, I ask, and he answers from Ohio that there are hellebores in the woods, and crocuses and snowdrops and winter aconite. I tell him that in North Carolina the early daffodils are out but that the aconites are gone and the crocuses past their best.”

Lawrence always kept in touch with gardeners in other parts of the country. “It is not enough to grow plants,” she writes. “Really to know them one must get to know how they grow elsewhere. To learn this is it is necessary to create a correspondence with other gardeners, and to cultivate it as diligently as the garden itself … Gardening, reading about gardening and writing about gardening are all one; no one can garden alone.” Every gardener I know well understands this sentiment.

Based on her own extensive gardening experience and that of others, Lawrence extolled the pleasures of little bulbs and their invaluable role in gardens of all sizes and at all times of the year. “The gardener who thinks the little bulbs bloom only in spring is missing the best of them,” she wrote, observing that some produce flowers even in northern gardens in December. For example, she noted that Mr. Krippendorf wrote to her of finding “a lonely snowdrop” on December 5, 1953.

The book’s lively descriptions of various little bulbs and their fascinating histories inspired me to pay closer attention to the catalog pages devoted to them. Although I always enjoy dreaming about planting wide swaths of colorful tulips and daffodils, I no longer have the space, or energy, for that undertaking. For now I’m concentrating my efforts on planting small spring bulbs in a perennial bed I can see from my kitchen window. The biggest challenge is to choose from the many offerings available. Here are some to consider:

Snowdrops (Galanthus) are the usually the earliest to bloom. They push their way up through snow and frozen muck, assuaging our fears that spring will never come. This diminutive flower whose white petals droop on a slender stem comes in various sizes and shapes with a range of bloom times. Deer and rodents leave them alone. Some, like the G. nivalis and G. elwesii, are quite common and readily available. Others, including the G. plicatus, are hard to come by, unless you know a Galanthophile, that is, a galanthus obsessive who collects and cultivates rare species. These unusual bulbs fetch hefty prices. Last year, a Galanthus plicatus “Golden Tears” sold in the U.K. for nearly $2,000. Luckily for us, the more common varieties are not expensive, and to my eye they are almost as exquisite as their fancier cousins.

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), is another early bloomer, producing bright yellow flowers above attractive rosettes of green leaves. It’s in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, and although it’s only 4 to 6 inches tall, it makes a bold statement in the late winter landscape. Mr. Krippendorf grew tens of thousands of them on his extensive woodland property and in mid-March he wrote to Lawrence, who had a relatively small garden, that “if you don’t like yellow you won’t like the woods now.” Like Galanthus, they are deer and rodent resistant and naturalize freely.

Grecian windflowers (Anemone blanda) deserve more attention from gardeners hungering for early spring color. “It is well to begin with a lot,” writes Lawrence, “for they will be wanted once they are seen,” The small daisy-like flowers come in a variety of colors, white, deep pink, and periwinkle blue, all with bright yellow centers. They naturalize easily and are also unappetizing to deer and rodents.

Summer snowflake (Leucojum aestivum) blooms in mid-spring, despite its name. Its white flowers look like nodding bells on stems that grow between 12 and 24 inches tall. There are Leucojums for the other seasons too, and according to Lawrence, they don’t always bloom according to their nominal season and aren’t widely available. “I know of only one way to come into possession of the spring snowflake,” she writes, “and that is to be a friend of Mr. Krippendorf.”

For those of us who treasure truly blue flowers, Scilla, also known as squill, tops the must-have list. Although the star-shaped, slightly drooping flowers come in white, pink and various shades of lavender, scilla is most conspicuous when it appears as a carpet of bright blue surrounding deciduous trees that are just starting to bud out. Scilla can be planted in lawns to produce the same effect, but the lawn must be left unmowed until the flowers’ grass-like foliage dies back later in the spring. Chionodoxa is a Scilla relative that has blue petals that fade to white at the center. Another Scilla relative, Puschkinia, has striped blue and white petals.

Rock-garden iris are another of the little bulbs that add a pop of color to the early spring garden. Iris reticulata and Iris histrioides, two common varieties, reach only around six inches in height. They come in a range of hues, from palest yellows and lavenders to deep blues and purples, with delicately etched falls (the downward opening petals) in different colors. Lawrence writes admiringly of them, noting that “because of their own brilliance, or from the illuminating touch of the winter sunlight, they have the sparkle of Venetian glass.”

I am always thrilled to discover a new garden writer who offers fresh perspectives and perceptions. Elizabeth Lawrence was a horticulturalist and landscape architect who wrote extensively about gardening in the South. She was the first woman to receive a degree in landscape architecture, in 1932, from North Carolina State University. Like the little bulbs she writes about, she deserves to be better known.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.


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